Iraq erupts – over 330 die in clashes

IssueDecember 2019 - January 2020
News by PN staff

Large-scale unarmed anti-government protests in Iraq have been met with lethal force from the security forces, leaving over 330 people dead since the beginning of October.

While the main focus of popular anger has been corruption, unemployment, poverty and the lack of public services, there have also been a number of protests at symbols of Iranian interference, including Iranian consulates.

On 26 October, to take another example, protesters set fire to dozens of offices belonging to the Hashd al-Shaabi/Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) paramilitary forces, many of which have received financing, training and weapons from Iran.

The Iraqi government ordered the integration of the PMUs into the regular military this summer.

PMU fighting groups are overwhelmingly Shia.

While some PMU factions are loyal to the Iraqi Shia leader, grand ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, or to the militant Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the majority are said to be loyal to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.

On 26 October, demonstrators burned the headquarters of one of these Iran-backed groups, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. They then killed two leading Asa’ib commanders, dragging them out of an ambulance.

It is widely believed in Iraq that a large number of the deaths among demonstrators is due to PMU snipers shooting from rooftops.

‘Iran doesn’t want anything that threatens its position here and that’s why the reaction was so harsh,’ an intelligence officer at the Iraqi interior ministry told Ghaith Abdul-Ahad of the Guardian in late October.

In mid-November, the Intercept published 700 pages of Iranian intelligence reports from 2014–2015 ‘detailing years of painstaking work by Iranian spies to co-opt the country’s leaders, pay Iraqi agents working for the Americans to switch sides, and infiltrate every aspect of Iraq’s political, economic, and religious life.’


This wave of protests has been different from previous upsurges since the declaration of victory over the Islamic State terror group in December 2017.

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) points out that previous demonstrations have usually followed shortages of water and electricity in the usually brutally hot summer months.

This year, though, heavy rainfall and a mild summer meant that water and power supplies improved.

ACLED also points out that most Iraqis on the demonstrations have been young men unconnected to the Communist party, Moqtada
al-Sadr or other opposition parties. ‘ACLED data [up to 23 October] demonstrate that over 90% of recent demonstration events had no links to organized associate actors.’

So the trigger has not been a lack of services, and the protests have mostly not been organised by existing political groups.

ACLED suggest: ‘More than anything, the recent demonstrations seem to signal the frustrations of disenchanted youth, who face challenges to their livelihoods as they are unable to find jobs in a country plagued with corruption.’

Youth unemployment in Iraq is believed to be about 25 percent: 800,000 Iraqis reach working age every year without the possibility of a job.


The most influential person in Iraq is probably grand ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, leader of Iraq’s Shias (the overwhelming majority of the population).

On 15 November, Sistani made a rare political intervention, supporting the protests, saying they would continue ‘despite the heavy price and grave sacrifices it [the movement] requires’. He went on: ‘Because they [the protesters] found no other way to revolt against the corruption which is getting worse day after day, and the rampant deterioration on all fronts.’

Sistani described the corruption as having reached ‘unbearable limits’. While large parts of the population found it more and more difficult to meet their basic needs, the country’s leaders ‘share the country’s wealth among themselves and disregard each other’s corruption’.

The Shia cleric called for a new election law to be passed rapidly, and new elections with ‘new faces’.

A few days earlier, he had endorsed a UN plan for political reform which included a new election law. It also called for releasing peaceful demonstrators held since 1 October, an investigation into cases of abduction and punishment for those found guilty of using excessive force against protesters.

On 15 November, Sistani warned: ‘If those in power think that they can evade the benefits of real reform by stalling and procrastination, they are delusional. What comes after these protests will not be the same as before, and they should be aware of that.’

Topics: Iraq